A Washington Post reporter once described evangelical voters as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." As we edge closer to the 2008 presidential elections, count on the press being the uneducated ones -- easily led by their farcical view of religious Americans.
In a recent Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll, more than a third of registered voters polled said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, happens to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a leading contender for the GOP ticket; so "the Mormon question" has been a hot topic in some political circles. But although, among the speculators, it is widely believed that evangelical Christians would no-way, no-how vote for a Mormon, the poll numbers hint that Romney's real obstacle might be a much more traditional political one.
Looking at the numbers, John C. Green, a religion-and-politics expert at the University of Akron, points out, "There appears to have been an increase in the skepticism about voting for a Mormon for president since the late 1990s." Green speculates: "This increase may reflect the opposition to Mormons among evangelicals and other conservative Christians. But it also may reflect opposition from liberal Democrats and seculars who recognize Mormons as a socially conservative group."
In the 2006 poll, self-described "liberal Democrats" were those most likely to oppose a Mormon candidate.
However, these current generic numbers, Green says, "don't necessarily predict outcomes. The reason is that the candidates are real people with records, skills and programs -- all of which can matter more at the ballot box than generalized opinions about religious groups."
So as the discussion moves from an anonymous Mormon candidate to the actual Mitt Romney, and from abstract speculation to actual primaries and caucuses, polling will become more meaningful. Those opposed to a generic Mormon candidate may reveal that their opposition is prompted much more by political ideology than by sectarian concerns about religion.
Michael Cromartie, who runs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has observed: "Most evangelicals do perceive Mormonism to be a cult and are deeply troubled by its theology. But this does not mean they would not vote for someone like Gov. Romney." When they vote for president, they are voting not for a pastor or confessor, but for a political leader -- and in that arena, evangelicals and Mormons have much in common.